Share this content

Leadership figures in focus - Napoleon Bonaparte

by
10th Feb 2014
Share this content

Professor Stephanie Jones is co-author of the upcoming book Napoleonic Leadership - A Pact with Power, to be published by SAGE in London in mid-2015, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon as a leader was complex and is a challenge for us to understand, despite dozens of new studies appearing as the 200th anniversary of his defeat at Waterloo approaches – in June 2015. Watch out for many TV shows and media features – but we might be none the wiser as a result…

Full of contradictions

Why is he so difficult? Probably because he was full of contradictions. And to make it even more interesting, he didn’t just get better and better and then die and fade away. He lost the plot, became obsessive, even psychotic. When he finally was beaten on the battlefield and had to concede defeat, all his supporters – including his close family members – dumped him. He spent six miserable years in exile pondering on what went wrong and trying to rewrite history.

Love/hate relationship

But he always gets coverage in any study of great leaders in history – especially in the children’s series Horrible Histories – because we love him and hate him at the same time. He was quite romantic and glamorous – there are exciting pictures of him with long hair on a charging white horse, flourishing a sword – before he got fat and comfortable. Then there are all the stories of him being short, and bossy, and having embarrassing illnesses. And his love-life – “not tonight, Josephine.”

Contradictions

Let’s take a look at these contradictions. Napoleon clearly had merit and ability as a General, winning battles routinely, especially when physically present. Many studies of Napoleon focus on his military prowess. He adopted new tactics, strategies, and had a way with inspiring soldiers – which might have had something to do with putting boots on their feet, gold and silver in their pockets, and food in their bellies. But his ultimate failure was to take place on the battlefield.

"Any leader who lives by the sword is in all likelihood bound to die by it too."

One of the most famous Napoleonic quotes is about an “army marching on its stomach” – he was practical, realistic, and set about getting France back into shape after a decade of revolution, chaos, lawlessness and economic upheaval.  Anyone with any doubt about the chaos caused by revolutions need only look at Egypt in recent months. Napoleon put France back on its feet – but his obligation to the constant expansion of his country’s territories – partly to ensure more supplies of gold, silver and miscellaneous booty – also constantly drained the treasury.

Being always on a war footing – whilst helping to contain opposition and keep everyone on the alert – was exhausting for all, and meant that he could never make friends with other European rulers. They were always enemies or only temporary allies, and none of them would ever trust him. They were especially afraid that he would start mini-French revolutions in their countries too – rather like the Arab Spring contagion of 2011 and onwards. So war, chaos and economic upheaval continued in France, even if revolution and lawlessness were less of a problem. 

A charismatic leader

Napoleon’s undoubted charisma in leading men throughout his military and political career won him many supporters, but ironically they were quick to leave him when things turned sour. He had an amazingly magnetic personality. Even when a prisoner on the way to exile he could charm the birds off the trees, and win over tough English sailors who had been brought up to fear and hate him. English mothers used to stop their babies from crying by telling them, “hush and be quiet, or Boney will get you!” But Napoleon’s charisma was combined with an amazing level of being naïve – he almost didn’t realize the extent of his power when his star was in the ascendant, and certainly wasn’t able to cope with reactions when he crashed and burned.

Napoleon's mistakes

He made use of plebiscites and popular elections to gain his position as Life Consul and then Emperor of the French, but the masses were to tire of him and turn against him as he demanded constant sacrifice. There are definitely limitations to depending on the masses as a main source for support. He could probably have survived to fight again if Paris had not fallen to the enemy so quickly. He thought the Parisians would fight to the death for weeks to save their city from being occupied. But – becoming wealthier under Napoleon’s rule – they sewed their diamonds into their stockings, buried their heavier treasures in their gardens – and fled to their holiday homes in the countryside and to their royalist cousins in exile.

Early beginnings

Napoleon was not actually French originally – he was born on the island of Corsica, at a time when this Mediterranean outpost was in transition from being a colony of the Italian state of Genoa, to pre-revolutionary France. Throwing in his lot with France and embracing the ideals of the Revolution, he was able to capitalize on the opportunities offered in a land where a good deal of talent had been guillotined or had fled overseas. His contacts, friends and social circle were originally Corsican, and his politics and ways of operating were more Corsican – more collectivist, clannish – perhaps a bit more Sicilian and mafia-like – rather different in approach than most northern European cultural norms. Corsicans are culturally obliged to take care of their families, but in the process of giving the most amazing opportunities to his large number of siblings and hangers-on he encouraged an attitude of entitlement and greed, rather than that of loyalty.

His attempts to temper this with a fear of reprisals did not always work. His ability to manipulate, bargain and be conniving was actually surpassed by some of his closest intimates – like Talleyrand and Fouche, Murat and Bernadotte.

Napoleon could suddenly seize power, but he could just as rapidly lose it. He was not concerned so much with own lineage, but above all he wanted to create a legitimate dynasty in which his son could inherit. Always the parvenu, the adventurer, the usurper, the respect of the crowned heads of Europe always eluded him…

An evil man?

As pointed out in contemporary works on Napoleon, he was a bit evil – but not very evil, not comparable with 20th century perpetrators of wars and genocides. Napoleon killed people – he led nearly half a million soldiers to their death in the advance and retreat on Moscow in 1812 – but this was all part of being a soldier then…   

For British people, taking a view on Napoleon is very difficult, as we have to unlearn what we have been brought up with for 200 years. The Corsican tyrant; the parvenu; the adventurer; the usurper. We still don’t understand him, but we still enjoy the jokes…

Tags:

Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By Richard Simpson
12th Feb 2014 16:15

As with all historical figures it is important to understand the context in which they emerged and became pre-eminent. I don't know a great deal about Napoleon but I do believe that his purpose was to export the French Revolution to the rest of Europe, largely by conquest. Without millions of followers recognising him as the embodiment of this purpose we may never have heard of him. If you read War and Peace (sorry for such an outrageous name-drop) you will read that before he invaded Russia, Napoleon was seen there by the young upper class as the embodiment of modernity, the means of delivering liberte, egalite and fraternite to systems that were hidebound, autocratic and sclerotic. The very fact that someone like Napoleon could emerge as a national leader was part of his allure. Yes, he had qualities and his life's trajectory brought the opportunity to get his hands on the levers of power, but he may not have emerged as the scourge of Europe in a different place or a different time. So it is always problematic to take a leader out of his/her context and distil his/her qualities as applicable for all seasons. We also suffer from hindsight bias and apply retrospective coherence to history. So we look for factors that contributed to his success (because we know how successful he was) and ignore those that did not (as irrelevant because they don't support the central thesis that Napoleon was successful). The only basic lesson to learn, I think, about Napoleon and leadership is: Have a clear purpose and millions of followers with guns.

Thanks (0)